By Gordon Dickson Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
One day a couple of years ago, Brenda Stoner needed a pickup.
"I needed to move something from downtown Dallas to Plano and didn't have the facility to get it done," she said.
The single mom compared shipping costs at freight couriers UPS, FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service but found none fit her need.
She just needed to haul something across town -- a task someone with a pickup could probably complete in less than an hour -- and she was willing to pay a reasonable price.
Unable to find such a service to hire, she reluctantly did what many other people do in this kind of situation.
"I borrowed a pickup from a friend, and I felt guilty about it, like everybody else," she said.
Motivated by that experience, Stoner and a handful of partners last year launched Pickup LLC, a service that's now making its way into the Fort Worth area. The company's main mission is to provide an on-demand pickup truck and driver for customers who need something -- furniture, art work, junk or whatever else fits in a truck bed -- hauled from one point to another in the Dallas-Fort Worth region.
They hope to eventually expand to other metro areas and perhaps enjoy success comparable to that of ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft, both of which were practically unheard of until 2012 but have since turned the traditional taxi industry on its ear.
How it works Like Uber and Lyft, Pickup LLC connects its drivers with prospective customers using a smartphone application. The company, headquartered in Addison, launched an app simply named PICKUP, which is available free on iTunes or Google Play.
Users download the app and create an account with a credit card. Then, when they need anything hauled, they simply click on the app and press a button on the phone to ask for a ride.
They [Pickup LLC.] have got to get big, as fast as they possibly can
Michael Sherrod, TCU business professor In most cases, a driver arrives in five to 20 minutes, and the minimum charge of $45 usually covers most trips under 10 miles, said co-founder Aaron Favara. The company is hiring Fort Worth-area drivers to improve response times on the western side of the Metroplex, he said.
For longer rides, the price is $1.50 per mile and 80 cents per minute. Customers are quoted an estimated cost before the driver arrives, and their credit cards aren't charged until the trip is complete.
Like Uber, customers are sent a photograph and description of the driver and pickup, so they will be able to identify their driver when he or she arrives. (So far, the network of drivers is overwhelmingly male.)
Customers may also take a photo of the load that needs to be hauled and send it to the driver through the PICKUP app.
Trips are insured up to $20,000, Stoner said.
And when hiring drivers -- more than 100 are already on board, mostly in the Dallas area plus a handful on the Fort Worth side -- Stoner looks for applicants who are military veterans, police officers or firefighters seeking a second income.
Those applicants are favored, she said, because they are more likely to pass criminal and driving background checks and typically have people skills needed for the job. For example, a driver might not only haul a load to someone's home, but also give the customer a hand bringing it inside.
"We have a crop of really great guys who drive their own pickup trucks," Stoner said during a recent visit to Grandeur Design, an interior design shop in Fort Worth's West Seventh area where on a recent morning a customer called PICKUP to move a large oil painting.
"They'll pick up an item from a store like this. They'll load it up in their pickup truck, secure it, tie it down, wrap it in a blanket if necessary, take it to your house, bring it inside and put it exactly the way you want it," said Stoner, a former Texas Instruments engineer who has turned her attention to numerous startup businesses.
PICKUP drivers have a few restrictions. They can't haul animals or hazardous materials, for example, and they can't give the customer a ride in their vehicle.
Tip of the iceberg The idea for the PICKUP app may be just the tip of the iceberg as more entrepreneurs seek to copy the on-demand business model made famous by Uber and Lyft, said Michael Sherrod, a publishing and web-based businessman now serving as the William M. Dickey Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Texas Christian University.
"The service you're providing is connecting buyers and sellers. It's much less capital intensive. There is no brick-and-mortar framework," said Sherrod, who teaches at TCU's Neeley School of Business. "This technology is going to have all kinds of uses for banks, the financial sector ... insurance, the legal system. There are even ways to share tools and toys."
The demand for contract workers such as ride-sharing drivers is also on the rise, as more Americans turn to contracting and freelance work rather than more traditional full-time employment, he said.
By 2020, an estimated 40 percent of the American work force will be contractors or freelancers, rather than traditional full-time employees, one study projects.
Today, 34 percent of the American workforce makes a living on freelance work, and by 2020 the figure could increase to 40 percent of laborers, according to a study released in May by Requests for Startups, a business newsletter. The trend is dubbed the "1099 Economy," so-named because freelancers typically provide a 1099 Form when filing their personal income taxes, rather than a W-2 form used by workers with traditional full-time jobs.
One key challenge for Pickup LLC may be responding to eventual criticism from traditional moving companies, who may argue that customers are better served with professional movers in a company-owned van than freelance drivers in their own pickups.
Uber and Lyft continue to face massive resistance from traditional cab companies, which argue that customers were putting themselves in danger by riding with amateur, less-regulated drivers.
PICKUP may also face increased competition, as other businesses copy the concept. Sherrod even said he wouldn't be surprised if Uber and Lyft themselves someday offered a similar service.
"They [PICKUP] have got to get big, as fast as they possibly can," Sherrod said.
Driver's perspective John Bartell of Aledo certainly hopes PICKUP gets big quick.
The 25-year Army veteran, who along with his wife publishes a Living Aledo lifestyle magazine, began driving for PICKUP in August. He heard about PICKUP through a local veterans organization and inquired about a job.
He gets an average of two to three calls per week to pick up loads throughout North Texas. In his spare time, Bartell also visits retailers such as Grandeur in west Fort Worth to spread the word about the availability of the service, and drum up future business.
At Grandeur, a stack of PICKUP business cards is now on the cashier's counter, and an employee says two or three customers per week inquire about getting help hauling their goods from the store.
"It's just amazing to me no one has thought of this before," Bartell said.